Early last June, Brentwood School posted an image of a black square on Instagram. This was eight days after George Floyd had been killed, and it was part of #BlackoutTuesday, a social media campaign against racism and inequality. Other Los Angeles prep schools also participated in the well-intentioned if largely symbolic online gesture, along with millions of other institutions, businesses, and individuals. But Brentwood’s black box got what’s known as ratioed; it received more negative comments than likes. Many more.
“Brentwood is a toxic racist cesspool for students of color, but an ivory tower for the wealthy, white elite,” read one of the scores of scathing remarks that kept popping up on Instagram throughout the day. “If you cared about racial justice, you would close your doors and redistribute your obscene wealth,” read another.
In the year since Floyd’s murder, the atmosphere at this bucolic, super-exclusive, $38,000- to $45,000-a-year private school has only grown more poisonous, with some Brentwood alumni of color not only hurling accusations of racism but also demanding that the school completely scrap what they see as a biased curriculum. Meanwhile, parents, teachers, and administrators spent much of last summer and fall wrestling over the value of books like To Kill a Mockingbird—a civil rights classic to some; an outdated, problematic text to others—in what’s shaping up to be an epic battle over the hearts and minds of the children of America’s one percent.
To be sure, scenes like this are not occurring only at Brentwood. Similar skirmishes are breaking out at elite prep schools all over—at Harvard-Westlake, Marlborough, and Archer School for Girls in L.A. and in New York at Chapin and Dalton—making headlines across the country in publications as ideologically divergent as the New York Post and The Atlantic. But it’s worth focusing on what’s going on at this particular school off West Sunset. Because it’s here at Brentwood that all the forces arrayed in this conflict—woke alumni who want to tear the system down; teachers who’ve had a hard enough time getting through the year on Zoom, let alone dealing with paradigm shifts in educational priorities; and angry, frustrated moms and dads who just want their kids to get into good colleges—are most dramatically and publicly clashing, like those stranded boys battling each other on a deserted island in Lord of the Flies, one of the novels Brentwood struck from reading lists last year.